Too many cooks spoil the broth. So says an English idiom. The fact that English has borrowed from so many world languages seems to have injected a high rate of inconsistencies into its sound system. With evidence of borrowings from Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian and even West African languages, it is really difficult to narrow the rules guiding the pronunciation of English Words.
In this rather comic treatise, I shall be calling attention to the spelling, pronunciation and confusion that characterise many words with a view to helping readers gain retention on the spelling and articulation of certain English words that have letter-sound inconsistency.
For starters, one wonders why the English word “queue” is not simply spelt as q. Why use five letters where one captures it? This must be because letters are not paid for in the creation of new words. I cannot imagine a Nigerian trying to pronounce the word “queue”, going by the letters. I recently laughed at an attempt by someone to pronounce “opaque” because the spelling led the innocent man to pronounce something that sounded like the Delta-Igbo name “Osakwe”. The last three letters in “opaque” are simply articulated as /k/, leaving one to wonder why the word is not just spelt as “opak” or “opaq”.
Attracting surprise, also, is the reason “suite” is pronounced exactly as “sweet”. Are you wondering who made these rules of pronunciation? I wonder, too. The sweet-suite situation is exactly the same as the jail gaol case. How can “gaol” be pronounced as “jail”? Well, these two have the same meaning, so let us pardon the authorities on the language (not “authorities in the language”) for the mental stress. Away from those ones, if we have the letters “f” and “i” in film, fish, fist and so on, who, on earth, decided to complicate spelling by replacing “fi” with “phi” in Philip, Philomena and philosophy? This can only be in English!
The dynamism around the letter w and the sound /w/ is another crazy experience in English pronunciation. While one assumes that the letter should generate the sound as it is in words such as woman, window and wise, it is interesting that English has many words with the letter w without the sound /w/ and others with the sound /w/ without letter w.
On the one hand, words such as vow, vowel, bowel, towel and tower contain the letter w but are not to be pronounced with the sound /w/. On the other hand, careful attention to what you are articulating will reveal to you that there is the /w/ sound in one, queen, liquid and linguist even without the letter w.
Further, it is not so easily explainable why the second “o” in pronounce is dropped when the word is changed to a noun: pronunciation. Similarly, the spellings of “maintain” and “sustain” become misleading when you wish to change the words to nouns; maintenance and sustenance are the correct spellings, as opposed to the likely error of maintainance and sustainance born out of the verbal forms.
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It is interesting, too, that “president” is pronounced almost exactly as “precedent”, aside from the fact that the s in president is pronounced as /z/, and the c in precedent is pronounced as /s/. What is more, do not be tempted to conclude that the letters “ch” will always generate the sound of church, charge and change. The “ch” in charlatan, chauvinist, chagrin, chauffeur, champagne and sachet is, in point of fact, pronounced like the “sh” in a shoe.
Moreover, which other language has the madness of pronouncing s as /z/ in as many words as English? The s’s in visitor, advise, please, phrase, rise and whose are all pronounced as /z/, but this must not lead you to pronounce the s in “decease” and “cease” as /z/. Actually, they have the /s/ sound.
Last but not least, if you are not tired of the madness already, let me disclose that the two f’s in “off” give the /f/ sound, but the single “f” in “of” gives the /v/ sound. Meanwhile, it is equally permissible in the same language to pronounce the “ph” in “nephew” as /v/.
If I may now close in the conventional way I was taught to close arguments in my primary school, I hope I have been able to convince, and not to confuse, you that English is a crazy language.
Ganiu Bamgbose writes from the Department of English, Lagos State University.